Four Tips for Addressing Leadership Biases

Managing people hasn't been the same since COVID-19. In advance of their session at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo, two experts share what skills leaders need now.

Inclusive leadership is a process, and it starts with asking yourself some challenging questions. When I asked Tamela Blalock, CAE, VP, cooperative relations, at the National Cooperative Business Association, about it for a recent Associations Now Deep Dive story, she listed a few of them: “Who’s groomed for their highest level of success? Who is targeted to receive the most helpful information? Who is not? Is that intentional?”

Blalock three other leadership and DEI professionals will speak at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo, as part of a session called “Getting a Grip on the New World of Work.” The session will feature some practical guidance for leaders on how to understand and manage through their biases. In advance of the session, though, I wanted to share a few additional points that Blalock and one of her co-presenters, Pamela J. Green, chief engagement officer at Pamela J. Green Solutions, expressed about what leaders can do. 

You have biases. Everybody does. “Not all biases are bad,” Blalock said. “As human beings, we have a bias against paper clips.” The tricky part is acknowledging places where our biases are a product of cloudy perceptions of who we are and what’s happening with those around us. “We have preferences about how we see ourselves and the work culture we’re in.”

Getting past those biases requires a better understanding of others’ challenges, Green said. “Leaders forget what it’s like to be in the shoes of an employee who is not in control of a lot of the decisions that are made and affect the work. So it’s important for leaders to take a step back and learn how to see the world through their eyes.”

One-size-fits-all approaches won’t work. Various news stories about failed return-to-office rules have shown that leaders need to develop more flexibility around how workers do their jobs, and collaborate with others. “In leadership, it’s our responsibility to vote to empower our team rather than make them conform to what we’re most comfortable to,” Blalock said. 

Many leaders have been living off of their past successes.

Pamela J. Green

Hard-line approaches will be alienating. Many of those return-to-the office mandates were products less of considered approaches of how employees work, and more about what leaders preferred. And often, Green said, that preference is rooted in a pre-COVID attitude that doesn’t apply anymore.

“Many leaders have been living off of their past successes, thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us,’” she said. “That complacency is leading to shortages of talent. It’s revealing their inability to address a lot of the personal needs that people had.”

Understanding cultural differences will be key. During the session, panelists will discuss scenarios where cultural differences—a coworker wearing a hijab, for instance—can create deeper problems if leaders don’t get ahead of them. Racist and ageist speech requires intervention, of course, but divisive speech isn’t always cut-and-dried, and leaders will need to better understand some of their blind spots.

“Some leaders might say that coming back to the workplace is more collaborative,” Blalock said. “But it also increases the likelihood that people are going to touch my hair, or adopt a stereotypical Black accent. Those are the things I don’t have to deal with anymore because I’m not in that environment.”

Blalock and Green will be joined by Danielle Baron, CAE, SVP of marketing, communications, and industry relations at the School Nutrition Association, and Mariama Boney, CAE, CEO of Achieve More LLC.

(hyejin kang/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!